This article, in the light of the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden, appeared in the Irish Times on 18th December 2013.
The news this week that the US intelligence agencies and the UK’s Government Communications HQ (GCHQ) have being stalking around as avatars inside the online virtual worlds of Second Life, World of Warcraft and the Xbox Live gaming network brings me a wry smile as I write this. Just imagine the scene: a team of young 25 year old Edward Snowden-like geeks petitioning their senior 60 year old George Smiley-like boss to be allowed to spend their entire work time wandering around these virtual playparks – “you do understand Mr Smiley sir, it is purely just in case..” Apparently so many spooks are now doing so, that the spy agencies have actually had to put in place a “deconfliction” process so that secret avatars from different agencies do not accidentally virtually spy on each other!
Perhaps, as I imagine John LeCarre’s George Smiley might surmise, you may believe that while online gaming keeps the young lads off the streets, it is not for you. Being stalked by creepy avatars slinking around in dark raincoats wearing virtual moustache disguises is not a particular worry in your life. Maybe so, but then this week we learnt that the US’s National Security Agency is collecting over 5 billion location events a day. Every day, the NSA is tracking where hundreds of millions of people are and were. If you carry a mobile phone, then you may well be being tracked by an intelligence agency.
But then we already know that mobile phone tracking is actively being used by our own Gardai. Under our data retention legislation, mobile phone operators are required to keep details of phone usage, including location. The Gardai are making between 6,000 and 10,000 requests for such data each year, without the phone owners being aware. At the time of writing, the European Court of Justice is imminently expected to rule on the compatibility of the European Data Retention directive with certain articles of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
But it is not just phones. I imagine George Smiley would have been intrigued if he had discovered that his book store knew which books he had bought had remained unread; which had been started but not finished, and which had been read several times. I imagine he would have raised an eyebrow had he learnt that the Post Office opened every single letter he sent, whether business or personal, and also read every single letter he received. And that his social life, gossip and photo snaps were all being monitored. But in this digital age, Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech companies are energetically doing all these things to all of us who use their services.
It is not just the major internet companies. In yet another event this week, the US Federal Trade Commission accused an obscure Android smartphone development firm of needlessly collecting the phone locations of some 100 million people who innocently downloaded its flashlight app.
Why do these tech companies so actively monitor us, reading what we write and read, quietly looking over our shoulder all the time? Well, the current business model for the internet is commercial advertising, targeted at the surmised interests of the public who innocently accept the freely offered digital services. A digital advertising arms race has resulted, as internet firms vie to convince consumer brands that their digital deductions about individual consumer lifestyles are more accurate than those of their competitors.
All of this might be acceptable if digital advertising was actually accurate. But current advertising technology is woefully inefficient, and notoriously obtuse. For example, if I am reading an online article about fishing, then an advert for fishing gear would be entirely reasonable. But instead, the digital devil on my shoulder may recall that I just happened to buy a birthday gift for my very young niece a few months ago and so, rather than fishing gear, perversely now presents me with an entirely irrelevant advertisement for baby clothing.
This week eight major US web companies jointly sent a delicious media decoy to President Obama, pleading for reform of government surveillance by the NSA. They assert that the global public, and commercial firms, may well stop using their services in the light of the Snowden revelations. If usage of their cloud based services were to diminish, then of course their very own surveillance activities would flounder, resulting in falling advertising income.
I personally believe that there is little doubt that cloud-based web services are here to stay. Like the global phone infrastructure, they offer such economies of scale, accessibility and reliability, that a reversion to smaller private alternatives remains unlikely. However it is obvious that both companies and the public are becoming much more prudent when using cloud-based services. Inevitably more and more content will likely become encrypted, directly within each consumer and employee device. Data held in the cloud will thus mutate to become unreadable by both the intelligence agencies and the major internet players. Such end to end encryption is emerging as the real threat to the current business model of the internet.
It is clear that the next phase of the internet is now beginning, opening up plenty of innovative opportunities to competitively disrupt some of the current major players. For a sustainable internet business model, considerably more subtle approaches are necessary. I’m sure George Smiley would approve.